The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

The Abbess of Crewe if a very short book – just 128 pages – but there’s an awful lot going on.

In a convent in the north of England the Abbess of Crewe is dying. And so there will be an election. Who will be the new abbess?

Alexandra thinks the position is hers by rights. She is tall, elegant and aristocratic and she has been sub prioress. Definitely the heir apparent. And, usefully, she introduced electronic surveillance to the convent so she knows exactly what is going on.

But Alexandra has a rival. A very different rival. Felicity is small, plump and common and has a simple vision. All you need is love. Well she is having an affair with a Jesuit priest.

Now remember that Alexandra sees everything. She knows that Felicity has a casket where she keeps her love letters. And so her eager supporters, Walburga and Mildred, arrange a burglary.

Two young Jesuits perform a reconnaissance and bring back Felicity’s silver thimble as proof of their success. But Felicity notices the loss and she is prepared for them when they come back for the letters. She flees from the convent, alerts the authorities and becomes a media celebrity.

Will Alexandra, the newly elected abbess, be called to account? Well what do you think? Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it would help if I told you that the Abbess of Crewe was written in 1974? Yes, Muriel Spark has written a wonderful satire of Watergate.

It’s brilliantly done. The story stands up in its own right as well as mirroring real events. And it’s packed full of intrigue, gossip and great wit. So clever and so funny.

And yet this little book seems to have slipped through the net in the most recent round of Muriel Spark reissues. Well, it’s not her greatest work – some references are dated and the brevity and the need to mirror real events mean that it can’t quite hit the heights of her best books – but Muriel Spark a little off her best is still quite remarkable.

The Abbess of Crewe is a fine piece of writing, a striking period piece, and an entertainment with much to say. Hopefully a new edition will see the light of day before too long.

19 responses

  1. Such an interesting plot and so clever too. I’ve only read one Muriel Spark and that was ‘Loitering with Intent’. I intend to read more. Thank you for mentioning this one as I was unaware of it. Love the title and the cover.

  2. totally ignore my comment!! I had another window open and thought I was leaving my comment for JoAnn!!! I’m a loser! 😀

    I’ve never read anything by this author and not sure if it is something I would pick up and read or not but I found your review very interesting!

    • I was a little startled when I read your first comment. But I completely agree about JoAnn’s book. I love Muriel Spark, but no I don’t think this one is really your kind of book Staci.

  3. Sounds good – and I like convent-themed books. On my TBR pile are Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, Soeur Philomene by the Goncourts and I’d like to re-read Diderot’s La Religieuse which I enjoyed in college. Also, I’d like to read Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede.

    Back to Goodreads to add to the list!

    • And don’t forget Frost In May and Black Narcissus. And Julia Faolain’s Women in the Wall is extraordinary – one of the first Viragos I read. And Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held them I believe. And a few of yours I don’t know and must investigate …

    • This is great, but not necessarily the best place to start. I’s particularly recommend Loitering With Intent and A Far Cry From Kensington.

    • It is so cleverly done. Muriel Spark has such range and, though I haven’t loved everything I’ve read, every book so far has definitely been worth the time.

    • It is great fun, and just the riht length – some authors would take twice as long to do what Muriel Spark does so simply and quickly.

  4. Spark’s writing was always so elegant. I think that, aside from the satire on Watergate, this novel also reflects an aspect of early 1970s history – a sense of loss about the changes brought by Vatican 2, and the loss of traditional religious life.

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